But given the poor history of throwing big money at players whose previous employers deemed them replaceable, the Red Sox probably shouldn't try to rebuild their entire rotation through the free agent market. Especially because their in-season pitching selloff netted them a surplus of hitters, especially in the outfield. The Red Sox have set themselves up perfectly to trade a bat for an arm, or at least, a deal centered around those principles. And do I have just the suggested partner for them.
Last year, Cincinnati left fielders -- mostly Ryan Ludwick, along with a sprinkling of Chris Heissey and Skip Schumaker -- combined for a remarkably poor .233/.288/.339 batting line, one of the primary reasons why the Reds scuffled to a fourth place finish. Ludwick was so bad that the Reds decided to pay him $4.5 million to not play for them in 2015, and now they're in the market for a new left fielder.
Meanwhile, nearly the entire Reds rotation will qualify for free agency at the end of the 2015 season, and with significant money already committed to Joey Votto, Homer Bailey, and Brandon Phillips, the mid-market Reds are simply not going to be able to keep this group of starting pitchers together. And that means that they should probably trade Johnny Cueto this winter.
The Reds' unquestioned ace, Cueto is coming off the best year of his career, and his combination of effectiveness and modest $10 million salary for 2015 would make him one of the most attractive pitchers on the market this winter. And without a long-term commitment, he offers teams with low levels of risk tolerance a chance to acquire a premium arm without requiring a six- or seven-year commitment. Elite performance with minimal commitment is exactly the kind of pitchers that the Red Sox covet.
So the Reds need an outfielder, and the Red Sox need a frontline starting pitcher. Let's figure out a deal that will work for both Ben Cherington and Walt Jocketty.
For starters, we can eliminate the Red Sox trio of young center fielders -- Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo, and Jackie Bradley Jr -- from consideration, as the Reds already have Billy Hamilton for center field, and they are unlikely to want to acquire a speed-and-defense specialist to cover one of the smallest left fields in all of baseball. What plays best in Cincinnati's ballpark is right-handed pull power, as the Great American Ballpark inflates home runs by right-handed hitters more than any ballpark in MLB besides Denver's Coors Field.
Right-handed pull power outfielder? The Red Sox happen to have just such a player, in Yoenis Cespedes.
Cincinnati's ballpark was designed perfectly to complement Cespedes' power, and conveniently, Cespedes and Cueto have nearly identical terms remaining on their contracts -- Cespedes is due just $10.5 million before hitting free agency next winter. The only real difference between their remaining contracts is that Cueto will be eligible to receive a qualifying offer after next season while Cespedes will not, due to how his contract was structured when the A's signed him back in 2012, so the Reds would be sacrificing the right to collect a draft pick if they weren't able to sign Cespedes to a long-term deal.
In addition to the difference in qualifying offer eligibility, Cueto is simply the more valuable player, so the Reds would have every right to ask for additional compensation to even out the deal. So let's see if we can build a package around Cespedes-for-Cueto that works for both sides.
Clearly, the Reds are going to need some young cheap pitching in the near future, especially if they're trading away their ace before the season even begins. Reds manager Bryan Price was a well regarded pitching coach before he replaced Dusty Baker in the dugout and has had his fair share of success in turning live arms into quality pitchers, so a talented-but-flawed hurler like Anthony Renaudo or Allen Webster could be of interest to the Reds.
Still, both are pretty raw and neither project as significant contributors in 2015, so neither one should be counted on to fill Cueto's innings for 2015. To get a guy to fill that spot, the Reds will probably have to spend some money in free agency, and this is where a deal with Boston can really help; the Red Sox are flush with cash and could easily absorb some of the contracts on the Reds' books in order to give them the flexibility to pursue a free agent starter to fill the void trading Cueto would create.
For instance, the Reds are currently on the hook for $6.5 million to reliever Sean Marshall; freeing up that commitment alone could allow the Reds to go after a veteran innings eater for the back-end of their rotation. The Red Sox have no shortage of available cash, and Marshall represents exactly the kind of short-term risk that they like to take; before shoulder problems cost him most of the last two years, Marshall was one of the game's most dominant left-handed relievers. So, taking his contract doesn't just solely provide financial relief for Cincinnati, but also adds a bit of upside to the deal for the Red Sox as well.
From the Red Sox end of the deal, they'd give up some outfield depth, a piece of their stockpiled young pitching, and a little bit of cash in exchange for one of the game's best starting pitchers and a lottery ticket in the bullpen. The Reds get a left fielder who is perfect for their ballpark and more likely to re-sign for the long-term, as well as a young arm to restock their future pitching depth, and they save enough cash to sign a veteran pitcher to fill the hole they're creating by trading Cueto away.
A few months after flipping their own ace to get Cespedes, the Red Sox could switch sides of the deal and use the power hitting outfielder to land another frontline starter. The Reds, unlikely to enter a full rebuild with a veteran roster and a bunch of pieces that would be hard to move, get to take one more shot at winning with what they have, and perhaps land a player who they can retain beyond 2015.
Of course, there are a myriad of reasons why a deal like this might not happen, and we shouldn't expect this trade to actually happen. Plenty of things that look good from the outside fall apart when inside information is added to the mix. Maybe the Red Sox have figured out how to use seven outfielders at one time next year. Maybe Cueto loves cheese-and-meat covered hot dogs, so he will give the Reds a significant discount in order to not be separated from Skyline Chili. But as outsiders, just looking at each team's strengths and weaknesses, a Cespedes (and stuff) for Cueto trade seems to make a good amount of sense for both sides.